The Importance of Worldview: Roman Paganism vs. Christianity, AD 50-180

Nov 12th, 2011 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Recently, I read a remarkable magazine on medicine and health care throughout history.  What was most striking was the article on healthcare in the Roman Empire.  In my opinion, nothing better illustrates the power of worldview in explaining social change than this article.

The period from 30 BC to AD 180 is normally called Pax Romana, a period of unprecedented wealth, security, communication; an era that was the apex of Hellenistic culture.  The Roman army kept this forced peace and communication was relatively easy via the fantastic Roman road system.  But as historian, Gary B. Ferngren, shows, ?Compassion was not a well-developed virtue among the pagan Romans; mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society.  In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help.  Perhaps a family member would come to their aid, but sometimes even close relatives would leave their own to die.?  Roman civilization centered on its 5,000 cities, which stretched from Britain in the West to Jerusalem in the East.  The cities teemed with thousands of people and the separation between the rich and powerful and the poor and disadvantaged was marked.  Perhaps the baths in each urban area symbolized this social difference more powerfully than anything else.  Only the rich or the military could take advantage of these places of luxury and leisure.  Further, in a world filled with gods, the Greco- Roman world had no basis for caring for the sick, the destitute or the dying.  The gods were viewed as selfish, immoral and capricious.  Greco-Roman mythology taught that humans were often an annoyance to the gods.  In this worldview there was no basis for the concept of human dignity and worth.  Hence, these practices were quite common in the Greco-Roman world:

  1. The sick and elderly were routinely left to waste away?in Rome on the Tiber Island.
  2. Unwanted children were often left to die of exposure.
  3. If a father determined that the family could not afford to feed another child, that child would be abandoned on the steps of a temple or in the public square.
  4. Defective newborns were routinely left to die of exposure?almost anywhere.
  5. Female infants were exposed more often than males, because girls could not really support the family and, when she would marry, the family needed to provide a dowry.
  6. The chronically ill were often seen everywhere in the streets, baths and forums of the Roman cities.
  7. Many sick tried to awaken the gods to care for them, most regularly the god Asclepius, who was worshipped in hundreds of temples and shrines through the Roman Empire.  As Ferngren reports, ?. . . they would offer a small sacrifice . . .  then sleep overnight in the abaton, or sacred enclosure, where they believed that the god might appear to them, sometimes in a dream, to heal them.?

However, by the first century AD, a new ethic was penetrating the Empire?Christianity.  Christians began to care for the sick and the destitute.  The Christian ethic was founded on the concept that God created humans in His image (imago dei) and that proposition was the basis for the worth and value of every human being.  Genesis 9:6 established the basis for justice and the value of humans:  ?Whoever sheds man?s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.?  Further, because of the imago dei, child sacrifice, exposure of infants, infanticide and castration were all forbidden.  In addition, the doctrine of the incarnation, where the second person of the Trinity added to His deity humanity, deepened the implications of the imago dei.  Finally, the teaching of Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) profoundly challenged the Greco-Roman ethic.  As Ferngren demonstrates, ?This new ethic . . . [of] compassionate love (agape), [was shown] not to the deserving, but to the despised, indeed to enemies.  God loved us while we were sinners; Jesus commanded his hearers to ?go and do likewise.??  The 4th century historian, Eusebius, reported on the power of the Christian testimony in this pagan empire:  ?Then did the evidences of the universal zeal and piety of the Christians become manifest to all the heathen.  For they alone in the midst of such ills showed their sympathy and humanity by their deeds.  Every day some continued caring for and burying the dead, for there were multitudes who had no one to care for them; others collected in one place those who were afflicted by the famine, throughout the entire city and gave bread to them all.?  The love of God was manifested powerfully by the early Christians and that love is what transformed the Roman world.  May we Christians in the 21st century demonstrate God?s love in the same manner.  Our words and our works should mesh perfectly as we engage the culture as salt and as light.

See Gary B. Ferngren, ?A New Era in Roman Healthcare,? Christian History (Issue 101), pp. 6-9. PRINT PDF

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2 Comments to “The Importance of Worldview: Roman Paganism vs. Christianity, AD 50-180”

  1. Occult says:

    Super interesting article, it’s fascinating how paganism is almost dead now in the wake and expansiveness of Christianity over the past few centuries.

    • Anonymous says:

      In Japan , 90% of it’s population is Shinto which is a paganistic religion , numerous surveys were conducted on the matter and this is the number they resulted with at the end .